Cengage Learning recently announced its Clinton Global Initiative America Commitment, “Detroit Collective Impact – Pathway to Education & Work.”

Alongside other businesses and social-service organizations, we’re committing to use our collective resources to accelerate Detroit’s recovery by implementing some of our best and most innovative educational solutions. Through the work done in this initiative, Detroiters in need can earn their high-school diploma and access valuable career training through Career Online High School (COHS). Our partners will be providing tuition assistance and onsite support services to help broaden access to the program. What’s more, learners will be surrounded by a skilled support system that helps them achieve their educational goals—and ultimately prepare them to take hold of new opportunities that will lead to greater personal success and security.

But that’s not the whole story. For Cengage Learning as a company—and, for me as an individual—this commitment speaks to our core values, as well as our own history of making a difference through education.

Detroit: A History—and Future—of Innovation

Detroit has a long tradition of inventiveness and ingenuity—and of course, it’s best known as the “Motor City,” the heart of the American automobile industry. Detroiters’ industriousness and innovation put the entire country on the move.

Cengage Learning has a strong connection to Detroit, as well. It’s where Gale, leading provider of research resources to libraries and businesses and part of Cengage Learning, began over sixty years ago. Up until the late 90’s, Gale was housed in the historic Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit. Today, we have over five hundred Cengage Learning employees in the Detroit metro area, all of whom are committed to bringing innovative solutions to learners of all stripes. In public libraries, my earlier area of passion, Gale’s advocacy and outreach is re-defining how public libraries see themselves as vital learning centers in their communities.

Sadly, for the past few years, Detroit’s social and financial troubles—rather than its innovations—have made the headlines. Now that Detroit has emerged from bankruptcy, there’s a chance to turn that story around. However, when fifteen percent of the city’s adult population (over 70,000 residents) lack a high school diploma, there’s a huge brake on economic and social development.

As a Detroiter with my own deep roots in the city, I look at the educational challenges in Detroit as a place where Cengage Learning has the potential to make a meaningful difference. As an organization, we can leverage our technology, programs such as COHS, and other products and services we’ve developed, to help Detroit recover by helping people here get the education, training and skills they need.

The success of COHS demonstrates that our solutions lead very directly to skilled jobs, better wages, and improved employment. From here, we are able to change the conversation. As more people get their high school diplomas,these outcomes can inform public discussion and enable us to serve more learners. Interestingly, over 70% of our COHS graduates continue on to post-secondary training through two- or four-year institutions, ed2go’s career training, or other educational opportunities. By pursuing the path of lifelong learning, they’re securing greater opportunities and success for themselves—and this opens up additional opportunities for other Cengage Learning solutions.

Using Education Innovations to Open Up Educational Opportunities

At Cengage Learning, we firmly believe that education is the ultimate economic game changer. To serve and reach the people most in need, these solutions need to be accessible and flexible. They need to be built around a robust student engagement model where we understand the students’ needs and workflow, where students can progress at their own pace—a process that allows them to build confidence as well as their skills.

In COHS, the program takes into account students’ approaches to learning, as well as the factors that help and hinder their success. As a result, through COHS’s career certificate program and self-directed learning opportunities, people can learn online in different ways, and see newfound success. In the process, they become self-actualized, independent learners who can create a personal pathway to the family-supporting, life sustaining employment that they want and need.

The Detroit Collective Impact Initiative: A Coalition of the Caring

In Career Online High School, we have a cost-effective solution with proven results. However, one online solution—and one progressive education company—can’t resolve a city’s economic issues on its own.

As we’ve discussed our solutions with legislators and leaders in the city of Detroit, the state of Michigan, and in Washington with our public affairs team, we’ve heard the same thing: that education is a local, community-inspired endeavor. For this reason, we’re focusing on efforts to mobilize public and private organizations across local communities to provide educational opportunities for those in their own neighborhoods. It’s why we’re working with a coalition of caring partners—including Matrix Human Services, McDonald’s Corporation, Michigan Virtual University, and Kinexus. As word spreads, we are confident other partners will join us in this effort.

Each partner brings something different and valuable to the equation. Cengage Learning brings a unique series of educational solutions, as well as the means to connect thought leaders and decision makers in conversation. Smart Horizons, of course, brings the Career Online High School—curriculum, instruction and credential. Our partners bring skills and resources such as tuition assistance, student recruitment, mentoring, learning labs, and other services that encourage people to re-engage in their education. This collective outreach will produce results right in the city many of us choose to call home.

My Personal—and Professional—Mission in Detroit

As I mentioned earlier, I have a personal connection to Detroit. I grew up on the east side, and spent a lot of time with my grandmother Vicki, who moved to the city with a 6th grade education to work on the automobile assembly lines. She was so passionate about Detroit for its technology and innovation, and saw it as the land of ultimate opportunity. After years on the factory floor, she was convinced I needed an education to have an even better life. So like many, I’m the first generation to graduate from college. My immediate family ultimately left Detroit for the suburbs, but Vicki never even considered that—and regrettably she was killed by a middle school dropout in her home on the east side. Almost 25 years later, we’ve moved back to Detroit, motivated in part by a desire to help this city return to its position as an incubator of innovation and opportunity. If anything has changed in 25 years, it’s my resolve to make sure more people have a chance. I understand firsthand and painfully what happens when we deprive people of education and opportunity. I’ve seen up close what happens when people don’t have opportunities, don’t see a future, and don’t seek help. Zip codes shouldn’t determine destiny. In my zip code, the odds of a 14-17 year-old Detroit male’s chances of earning a high-school diploma improve substantially if he is taken into custody as a Class A felon. What’s wrong with this picture? Unfortunately, that’s a current reality. But education has the power to change this, and what we’re doing at Cengage Learning can be such a powerful driver in that equation. I’m privileged that my “day job” connects me with so many people who are passionate about education, and allows me to work on these kinds of efforts to change Detroit and other places like it.

I see Detroit as the ultimate “Comeback Academy”—after all, the city’s motto is “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus” (“We hope for better things; we will arise from the ashes”). It’s a city with a long history of building and re-building things. I’m back here to rebuild, and want to see scrappy Detroiters take a shot at getting the education they want and need. I’m convinced they’ll come back stronger than ever, returning to the labor force more skilled and better equipped for the opportunities that await them.

That’s how Cengage Learning connects my grandmother’s legacy, my work and my dream—and touches the lives of Detroiters, one student at a time.

Ron Stefanski is Executive Director of Strategic Alliances at Cengage Learning. View some of Ron Stefanski’s own photos of Detroit—a city on the move.

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